Fully clad in her burqa, 14-year-old Samsun walked confidently through a hallway full of teenagers staring at her curiously. She and her best friend Sabiya were there to register for our Football Clinic in Rupandehi, a district in Southern Nepal.
“I love watching football. As soon as I heard about the Football Clinic, I wanted to enroll,” Samsun said. She belongs to the local Muslim community. Many of her peers are forbidden from doing things that others take for granted, like walking freely around the village or going to school. But Samsun’s story is different; she comes from a liberal family, and her parents – especially her father – are vocal advocates for the empowerment of girls. If not for him, Samsun would not have garnered the courage to join the Football Clinic.
The Clinic is part of our project Pahunch, aiming to improve the access to justice and security for marginalized populations in Nepal. Through indoor training sessions and outdoor football (soccer) games, the Clinic brings young people and police officers together. They start meaningful dialogues, address grievances in a safe space, and achieve a new understanding of each other’s perspectives.
Back home, Samsun invited her father to come to the game and explained that she couldn’t wear the burqa to play. The next day, Samsun came to the pitch dressed in casuals. Her father, sitting on the bleachers, followed the game attentively. Every time Samsun was in the middle of the action, he would cheer her on. “Girls should be given the opportunity to choose a future they desire,” he told us. “Programs [such as this] help girls make sound decisions for themselves.”
90 minutes on the pitch seem like a short span of time, but for Samsun they were deeply transformative. After the match, she explained that “playing football with boys and the police can be very scandalous, but I felt so empowered because I had my father’s support.” Football acted like an ice breaker between the girls and the boys, helping them get rid of social stereotypes and establish spontaneous relationships.
In addition to gender biases, the game served as a way to break through cultural barriers. Samsun’s Muslim community is a minority in Rupandehi; for her, interactions with other groups are limited. “The Clinic gave me the opportunity to tell the participants about my culture,” Samsun said. “They had so many questions about the way I dressed, my religion, and my life. I had questions regarding their culture too. […] The Clinic provided a comfortable space for young people like us to understand each other and discuss things without getting judged and stereotyped.”
Interacting with the police was a surprising, meaningful experience as well. “We grew up with the notion that the police officers are strict,” Samsun explained, “but, when I met them in the Football Clinic, I found them to be very funny and interesting.” She and 84 youth from Rupandehi sat down with the officers and discussed pressing security issues in their community. Child marriage, dowry, substance abuse, domestic violence, and cyber-crime topped the list. They youth emerged from the Clinic with a restored sense of collaboration and a renewed understanding that security is a collective responsibility.
In spite of fear and mistrust, the young people at the Football Clinic built relationships based on empathy across the divides in Nepali society. For Samsun, it was a unique chance to have conversations outside of her bubble – and play her favorite game. “If not for the Football Clinic, I wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to interact with the police […],” she explained. “For a Muslim girl like me who dreams of playing football, this was a big thing.”
Today, Samsun is a young social activist in Rupandehi. With the police officers and other Muslim girls, she’s designing programs to address harmful social norms. She stands ready to transform her community, just like the Football Clinic transformed her.
Ayush Joshi is a Communications Coordinator at Search for Common Ground, based in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Sharm Tharu is a Field Coordinator at Search for Common Ground, based in Butwal, Nepal.
Learn more about Pahunch on our Nepal Country Page and on Facebook.